How not to become a senior orphan

  • For people who live alone, aging solo can be particularly challenging -- even downright dangerous.

    For people who live alone, aging solo can be particularly challenging -- even downright dangerous.

By Teri Dreher, Patient Advocate
Posted11/10/2019 7:00 AM

No one likes to think about getting old. But if you're fortunate enough to live long enough, it's unavoidable. And for people who live alone, aging solo can be particularly challenging -- even downright dangerous.

America is facing a growing population of senior orphans, also called elder orphans. These are older people who don't have a partner, children or other close friends or family to look after them. According to AARP, more than one in five seniors over age 65 is at risk of becoming a senior orphan -- and that doesn't include those with adult children who decline to help their parent.


Furthermore, the number is expected to grow. More than 40% of Americans live without a spouse or partner, a number that's been steadily trending upward for decades. Between growing economic independence and less social pressure to marry, more people are choosing to go it alone. Which is absolutely fine -- provided they plan ahead.

The perils of aging alone

Research has found that seniors who are socially isolated are at a higher risk of depression, cognitive illness, and medical issues. Month by month and year by year, these folks can slowly decline -- and if no one is there to spot it, no one can intercede. Did you know that people who are lonely actually die younger than those who aren't?

Even people who were active and successful in their youth may stop taking care of themselves when left to their own devices. It's not uncommon to see elderly folks who've stopped eating well, whose homes are falling apart and whose finances are in chaos. They may manage to present a normal face at church or to their neighbors and even doctors ... until, at some point, they no longer can. Often, that point turns out to be a medical or mental health crisis.

Plan for aging well independently

There are steps you can take to ensure you can live on your own terms but will receive proper care as you get older. But you must think about it and plan ahead. For example:

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• Work at staying healthy -- It's not a cliché. Seeing your doctor regularly, taking your medications as prescribed, eating well, and exercising body and mind all make a difference.

• Rethink where you'll live -- You may at some point choose to move into a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), which allows residents to move from independent living to assisted living and eventually skilled care as needed. Or you may choose to downsize from a home to a maintenance-free condo that's in walking distance to stores and such.

• Keep your social connections strong -- Maintain your friendships and social networks, whether church, volunteer organization or clubs. Or build some new relationships. Not only will this help you combat isolation, your connections may offer more help than you think.

• Appoint a health care and financial proxy -- You will need someone to make decisions for you if at some point you can't. If you have a trusted friend or relative, make them your proxy and inform them of your wishes. If not, there are other options -- see below. Your attorney can help you with this.


• Reach out to local resources -- There are a number of resources available to seniors if you know where to look. Senior agencies, social workers, elder care attorneys and private patient advocates are filling the gap for seniors without family.

Yes, you can live independently without going it alone. It just takes some planning. And you're worth it.

• Teri Dreher, RN, CCM, is a board-certified patient advocate and pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, the largest advocacy company in the Chicago area. Her 2016 book, "Patient Advocacy Matters," is now in its second printing.

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